The outbreak of COVID19 has ravaged global markets and generated a high level of uncertainty. So far more than 200 people have been infected with the virus. Chile’s health minister, Jaime Mañalich, estimates that the country’s peak of infections could reach 40,000 people by the end of April or early May. Chile’s political parties have recently come to an agreement on postponing the April 26 plebiscite amid health concerns, with October 25 as the tentative date.
This new date would coincide with the one-year anniversary of what some have called the largest protest in the nation’s history. At stake is not just whether to approve or reject the creation of a constituent assembly, but the composition of its members who will be in charge of drafting a new constitution. Sustained protests since October 2019 point to a growing dissatisfaction among citizens angered by the quality of public services and high-inequality.
The plebiscite is an outgrowth of these protests, some of which turned violent, but many of which were large, peaceful demonstrations. As debate over reforming the country’s constitution intensifies, could a more polarized society ensue? Regularly ranked as one of the richest countries in Latin America on a per capita basis and with a strong track record for the ease of doing business, many are asking whether the process for reforming the constitution represents a risk or opportunity for one of the hemisphere’s star performers. Here, it is useful to examine Chile’s past.
Chile’s experience managing political crises and constitutional reform
During the late 1980s, well-cited concessions between pro-democracy activists and the military controlled government led to a peaceful transition after 17 years of dictatorship. The administration of Patricio Aylwin, a centrist leader in the “No” campaign against General Augusto Pinochet, laid the foundation for several Concertación governments to follow.
The political coalition of center-left parties brought about a remarkable turnaround for many citizens. Not only did the country’s political, economic, and security institutions improve during this period of democratic reform, but millions of Chileans were lifted out of poverty over the next three-decades. According to figures from national surveys (Encuesta CASEN), roughly 40 percent of Chile’s population was living in poverty in 1990.
By 2011, the level of poverty had been reduced to approximately 14 percent of the population, representing 2.4 million people. In 2017, the level was 8.6 percent. At a time where many structural challenges existed for the region going into the late 1980s and early 1990s, a highly touted middle class and economic model began to emerge in Chile under democratic rule. Much of the reduction in poverty can be attributed to this period of growth.
Average GDP growth during the first decade of democracy was more than six percent, but slowed to 3.8 percent over the following two decades, between 2001 to 2018. Some Chilean and international observers are concerned that the approach held by many, if not all, administrations since the return of democracy, to maintain a predominately open and free market economy, could be at risk with a reformist agenda and new constitution—losing sight of the success of past decades.
Putting Chile’s ability to lower poverty and maintain growth into context, the early days of the democratic transition are incredibly important to understand. Support for a pro-market economy and the overall strategy of the Aylwin administration, was based on the understanding that growth alongside greater social spending, were both necessary in pushing the country’s development agenda forward. It was also understood that any deviation considered too extreme would likely face opposition. Pinochet still remained a real and present danger during the transition.
According to the political memoirs of Heraldo Muñoz, a prominent Chilean activist during the “No” campaign and current president of the Party for Democracy, the negotiations of 1989 that led to subsequent changes in the constitution of 1980 were mostly modest. These included among other changes the elimination of Article 8, which had weakened protections on individual rights.
A declassified 1988 CIA report titled, “Chile: How Authoritarian is Pinochet’s Constitution,” states that Article 8 was often wielded to “[…] order the arrest and prosecution of journalists and far left political leaders accused of a variety of offenses, including harboring subversive thoughts.” Muñoz also alludes to the stacking of the Supreme Court in his memoirs, whereby Pinochet increased the number of judges on the bench while at the same time offering incentives for early-retirement, allowing him to designate more than half of the judges to the nation’s highest court.
Since 1980, the judicial system and the country’s constitution have experienced various reforms, given the heavy-handed influence of the dictatorship on Chilean law and regulatory statutes. It was the legislative reforms of 2005, under former president Ricardo Lagos, that many constitutional scholars point to as a significant moment for Chilean democracy. Reforms included the curtailing of military influence on politics, moving the National Security Council under the purview of the president, and limiting presidential term limits to four years, among other changes.
During the second term of former president Michelle Bachelet, a constituent assembly was proposed. Proponents argued that the 1980 constitution, regardless of the flurry of amendments and changes in previous years, continued to limit a government response on particular issues, such as gender equality and labor rights. Furthermore, Chile’s Constitutional Tribunal, which operates outside of the judicial branch, had been created and was heavily influenced by the military junta; with some arguing it was complicit in human rights abuses during the dictatorship.
The current debate over constitutional reform however, is not solely based on the legacy of Pinochet. While important, it is also based on the notion of how a relatively wealthy country may be limited in instituting social policies that aim to improve public services and programs that support the overall welfare of citizens. Rather than a focus on poverty, proponents may see incrementalism as the enemy, instead of focusing on the distribution of what has been a widely-successful economy.
Uncertainty on the horizon
The upcoming plebiscite, now delayed until October 25, represents only one step in a lengthy process. Polls seem to indicate that voters will favor a constituent assembly, but the composition of its members will be the most sensitive subject. The biggest risk to meaningful reform, could be excluding legislative oversight, although a mixed assembly that includes civil society leaders may be a welcomed outcome that helps ensure protester’s demands are heard throughout negotiations.
As growing uncertainty across the world economy overshadows Chile’s quest for constitutional reform, it’s possible that the country may likely weather the current political storm. Supporting long-term reforms that not only strengthen democracy, but help establish new norms for doing business in the 21st century, could include strengthening social safety nets, such as pensions and a robust healthcare system, which most developed nations enjoy.
Reforming the constitution is one way of getting there, albeit major risks exist. At all costs, the reform process and final outcome should focus on eliminating any perception of a country that appears less stable, less outward looking, and more like other countries in the region.
Whereas the opposition is well-leveraged over the current administration, most political parties and the National Congress remain largely unpopular overall, making some room for coordinated negotiations possible. The region’s past experience in implementing constituent assemblies have also brought horrid outcomes—as any major headline today concerning Bolivia or Venezuela will show.
These should be examples to avoid, less Chile join the list of countries falling victim to a growing populist sentiment worldwide. One can be hopeful however, that Chileans will develop a more modest outcome, one that satisfies deeply entrenched political views held by large segments of the population that desire greater equity, especially those in more vulnerable situations.
At the same time, the government and opposition leaders can attempt to keep the institutional aspects of what has made Chile a successful model within the region intact, condemning any violence that threatens the process, and ensuring a delicate balance between representative democracy, and an open economy that is ready for new challenges on the horizon.
Anders Beal is a program associate in the Wilson Center’s Latin American Program. The views and opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of Center staff, fellows, trustees, advisory groups, or any individuals or organizations that provide financial support to the Center.